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The Atlas is proud to be partnering with the Hay Festival's Beirut39 contest, celebrating Beirut's year as UNESCO World Book Capital, to find the hottest authors under 40 of Arabic origin. Nominations are open until August 24th, 2009.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Infrastructure and Ideas: Contemporary Art in the Middle East

In Gallery 9, surrounded by Turner's pictures of naval battles, the great and good, the provocative and perceptive, of the Middle Eastern/Arab/Islamic art world gathered for the Tate and Nafas-sponsored conference, Infrastructures and Ideas: Contemporary Art in the Middle East -- not least to discuss the problematic geographical terms and visualisations of the area. Derek Gregory's keynote talk about mapping drew attention to the manipulation of national and political identity in the maps used by the media (for example, maps showing areas in Baghdad as "targets" versus showing them as populated neighbourhoods).

The subsequent discussion extends outwards towards the mapping done by the terms "Middle East," "Arab" and "Islamic," with the panel concluding that Middle East as a “convenient” term, one with a heritage but that is problematic. The panel chair David Elliott describes the speakers moving in their definitions from biopolitical power to the fuzzy power of culture, “which is very much where we stand,” which I thought was a somewhat naïve discounting of the imbrication of biopower and culture, as biopower delimits and defines culture from large-scale politics (wars, national boundaries, genocide) through pragmatics (money, publishing, censorship) to unconscious ideologies and artists’ identities.

The next speaker, Mourid Barghouti, addressed *exactly* this imbrication in his superlative discussion of the impossibility of translation without contextualisation, and the political pollution of poetic language. The session was introduced as concerning a complex mesh of ideas around translation: the act of translating visual arts into descriptive and/or critical language; the act of linguistic translation; and the processes of cultural translation, asking "what slips and is lost, what is enriched by that process."

In his talk, Barghouti started from, encircled, investigated and dismantled an essay by Linda Sue Grimes that appeared on Suite101.com on 1 January, 2009. Entitled "Barghouti's 'It's also Fine' But Martyrdom is Better, the essay reads Barghouti's poem "It's Also Fine" against itself. While Suite101.com is manifestly not a recognised literary critical publication, it claims 12 million readers per month, so articles on the site could, and do, reach many readers.

Barghouti read the poem
It’s also fine to die in our beds
on a clean pillow
and among our friends.

It’s fine to die, once,
our hands crossed on our chests
empty and pale
with no scratches, no chains, no banners,
and no petitions.

It’s fine to have an undustful death,
no holes in our shirts,
and no evidence in our ribs.

It’s fine to die
with a white pillow, not the pavement, under our cheeks,
our hands resting in those of our loved ones
surrounded by desperate doctors and nurses,
with nothing left but a graceful farewell,
paying no attention to history,
leaving this world as it is,
hoping that, someday, someone else
will change it.
and then the first paragraph of Grimes' essay:
“It’s also Fine” seems to suggest that not all deaths need to be violent. Barghouti’s poem features four verse paragraphs, each apparently dramatizing opposition to Islamofascism’s glorification of violent jihad for the institution of a world-wide caliphate and the production of martyrs. But the speaker never quite closes the door on that jihadist impulse.
Grimes' concluding paragraph continues the rhetoric: B
ut then the speaker adds a jab at his own idea and leaves his claims to be interpreted ironically by the youthful jihadist whose brain has been carefully laundered by power-grabbing, Islamofascist madrasa instructors.
This is where Barghouti began his intervention: madrasah, he pointed out, simply is school in Arabic; it can be used to indicate a school of ballet, of literature, of mathematics, high school.

From the careful reading - as a poet - of this word, he demonstrated that Grimes' reading is to her -- and a more generalised --
ignorance of Palestinian and Arab history, and a blindness to the cultural substance which gives the poem's images meaning. It’s fine to die in our beds because for generations the Palestinians, Lebanese, Egyptians and Syrians have struggled to end the occupation of their lands, the breaking of bones, the demolition of houses and uprooting of orchards. In such a context, to pass away from age or illness becomes a kind of privilege.
Barghouti quoted Edward Said's description of Arab literature as "embargoed literature" in the West (in The Nation in 1990); this embargo means that Western readers have little access, so Ms Grimes projects onto the text her own perceptions of Islam and Muslims: to her, a poem written by a Palesitnian should ineveitably be written by a jihadist, to a jihadist, glorifying jihad. [See, by contrast, Guy Mannes-Abbott's nuanced and contextualised discussion of Barghouti's work, which appeared on the blog in December].

Barghouti then asked whether a work of art face down the mentality created by the media and dominant culture in Europe and the West, as
those who don’t know the history and the colonial wound would not get to know them from a translated poem and a novel. When we read European literature translated into Arabic, we do it through the knowledge eof Euro civilisation, fed to us through university curricula and Coca-Cola. In Europe what is missing more than the nuances of the language, or the translator’s lack of command of the target language, is the absence of translated books of Arab history and the Arabic canon.
He suggested that the revision of an outlook that refuses non-Western thought and literature its hearing unless it conforms to Western norms, is the necessary preliminary to begin to receive translation. Translation from Arabic into English is in real trouble for several reasons, the most significant of which comes from outside the field of translation: victimisation of Arabis in media by stereotypes and generalisations, demonisation or romantic and Orientalist glorification. So it's naïve, Barghouti said, to expect a novel or collection of poems translated from Arabic to find public or publisher; "the small exceptions do not change the chilling facts."

"I often think there are whole groups who face the traumatic experience of a blocked scream," he said, of this enforced silencing by the dominant culture. He concluded that
Literature-with-a-capital-L controls the diversity of literatures, because of the Western concept of universality that no Western writer questions; African, Asian, Arab writers are epect to become universal through translation which is extended as a badge, a prize. Western culture is the main obstacle to intercultural dialogue with non Western cultures, with the idea of translation is all about.

Salah Hassan, the panel chair, commented that Barghouti's talk highlighted that translation always involves two cultures and two languages; but it’s always the West and the rest. But he pointed out that many of the conference speakers work between cultures and cross borders, and he asked the panelists to reflect on being caught in this bind as cultural brokers.

Negar Azimi, the editor of Bidoun, described the genesis of the magazine in 2004, in response to interesting expression happening in Arab capitals, that needed a repository for debate and critique. She described the "paranoia and sensitivity about representing the Middle East, which cuts across our editorial roles as cultural brokers." Bidoun's solution is to publish a mandate in the front, which, Azimi commented, "sounds like UN document, a humanitarian gesture." Four years later, Bidoun has evolved in line with the art scene, towards more sophisticated discussions, in which there’s less essentialism. She remarked that:
Translation to me implies there’s a problem in communication, need for mediators. We’ve always felt that responsibility – there wasn’t a Bidoun, although there have been many exciting magazines in middle East. But we’re losing that mandate, want to rearticulate our relationship to the Middle East.
Other magazines have been founded since Bidoun (Canvas, Brown Book, good cultural supplements in Arabic newspapers) – taken pressure of us to be privileged cultural arbiters, but they are still working with a diverse range of writers around the world to translate and connect East and West.

Gerhard Haupt, the editor of Universes in Universe agreed that translation was a practice of mediation, and said he started his site because in 1997 the internet was dominated byEnglish language, UScentric culture. UinU extended its project with an online magazine project, Nafas, to represent and support what Haupt referred to as the “so-called Islamic world,” after 9/11. They saw it as a tool to destroy preconceptions, and to represent the diversity of individual artists. Making the site multilingual has been very difficult practically and technically, but in 2006, they launched an Arabic version, and at that moment, the magazine became a tool in classrooms in Arab world, reaching a much broader audience. Haupt recently presented Nafas in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, where the cultural translation was between (in his words) “East and more East.” The communication took place through images, which proverbially say more than words for intercultural understanding, so that it would be possible to destroy conception of homogenous Islamic world by collating images from different countries.

Art historian Nada Shabout had
problems with the historical proverb that images are worth a thousand words. Actually, they’re problematic and very constructed. In the art world, there’s the same problem Mourid talked about – the contextualisation is completely lacking.
As an example, she pointed to the Western journalists who "stumbled upon Iraqi contemporary art," in 2003, and wrote "that the oppression of Saddam forced artists into abstraction." In 2006, they discovered a surrealist artist who was sanctioned by Saddam but produced figurative works, but had no idea how to approach this because as far as the West is concerned Iraq is arrested in modernism. Shabout also pointed out that curators, art historians and scholars are not really talking to each other, so research is not being collated, and that a more thorough discussion of methodologies is needed. She described her own struggle to see outside or beyong her Western training, conditioned by Orientalism or neo-Orientalism.

Bahraini artist Anas Al-Shaikh countered with pragmatic concerns from the other direction: not the development of an Arabic critical language, but the lack of access to the vast majority of writing about art that is not translated into Arabic. What is translated reached little consensus: there are 7 different terms for "installation art," for example. Artists in Bahrain lack the contextualisation and concepts for what they want to achieve. Bidoun, which is only published in English, sells very few copies in Bahrain. This blocks communication and discussion in international contexts. In response to a later question, Azimi announced that Bidoun is about to publish its first Arabic issue, with articles translated into Arabic and commissioned in Arabic and Farsi. But she commented that it had taken three years to build a group of artists and writers whose thinking was in line with the magazine. Her comments supported Al-Shaikh's counter to Shabout's claim, as he suggested that more artists engage with modernism than contemporary art, because they can appreciate and contextualise it.

Barghouti remarked that issues such as the translation of terms are not "technical, everything is part of the formation of knowledge." He went on to illustrate this powerfully:
The pollution of political language in modern times has reached a level that the name of movements, peoples or countries are polluted. You say for instance war, and you should use just murder. What happened in Gaza is not war, it’s murder. The F16s are moving as if they are Air France or Swissair, unchallenged. No-one would imagine to acquire anti-aircraft missiles; you can’t smuggle it or even think about having it. We have reached a moment in verbal abuse that an honest writer or critic or journalist would really have to rethink language to restore the freshness of political vocabulary. When the fourth-most armed country on earth is destroying buildings day and night, and people are speaking of victory, of winning and losing... And then they will tell you about the “vicious circle of violence.” A circle has no beginning. The most repeated expression in the Middle East conflict is this: this never tells you who started what when, as if people in Ramallah went to Germany or France or the Ukraine to kill the Jews. Such mis-usages can never be technical inaccuracy. Without trying to restore the accuracy of language that you are using as artists and critics, you are getting nowhere with the common understanding that supposedly comes of globalisation – it’s achieving its opposite: war, discrimination, lack of movement, lack of freedom, a killing field. The images are polluted, the words are polluted.

Hassan pointed out that neo-con language, in its perversions, has shaped the art world. Bush's “you are with us, or with the terrorists,” created the categories of good Muslims and bad Muslims; with museums and galleries becoming interested in presenting good Muslims through art, as part of universal humanist mission, creating certain expectations - like an emphasis on women artists. Some artists are complicit in the process, he said, partly because they don’t have the access and want it, but also because they reproduce the images from Arabian Nights that are part of continuation of Orientalist fantasies.

Haupt rejected the idea of the "good Muslim" as a false criterion imposed by Western thought; he argued that holding up the West as arbiter of taste omitted to recognise that modernist and contemporary art from the West had often been misunderstood and maltreated in Western galleries.Shabout pointed out that it took the Tate to arrange the conference; the West remains the power whether we like it or not. The West's obsessions - such as veiling - therefore dictate what art accedes to the global market, which has nothing to do with what appears in local galleries, but it does create a dichotomy. She also dismissed as expedient all rhetoric about art as bridging the gap between cultures, despite the goodwill that wanted to use art to try to humanise the people of Iraq. For Shabout, this still comes from a superior position taken by curators.

A question from the floor asked Shabout if she was interested in creating a terminology to replace the one she was rejecting. She replied that she was, and is, but by historicising the production and reception of Arab art rather than coining a term. The second questioner from the floor wondered whether too much interpretation had been foisted onto Middle Eastern art by Western arbiters using the artworks as "communication." Shabout agreed that too much interpretation actively deprived the viewer from looking, because the framework of the political discourse turned the artwork into an object for political communication only.

Nervously (because public speaking always makes me nervous), I asked whether a poem or novel or artwork could prompt its reader or viewer, through its artistry, cut through received images from the media and prompt research into its context? Perhaps due to my nervousness, the chair thought I was asking whether a novel *should* be working to counter media stereotypes and educate its reader. Barghouti, understandably, responded that:
A novel should be a pleasant work to read, and if this is translated into a better understanding this is a plus. First of all, it has to be good. If this is achieved, anything else is open to the formation of the reader. If you want to reach, write an article or give a speech, don’t write a novel.
It was a necessary comment, a delayed response in a way to Hassan's point about the expectations created by Western publishers and exhibitors looking to use art to meet certain criteria and needs, in response to funders and media interests, rather than researching and contextualising aesthetic practices. That contextualisation is, of course, part of the remit of the Atlas, a way of offering the individual reader a different place to discover literature that moves and excites them than the homogenous and expedient critical discourse of the day.

Tomorrow, sessions on Tradition and Modernity (highly relevant to poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing from the Arabic-speaking world, as it is to visual arts) and on The Politics of Space, which I was hoping would fall under the "Ideas" aspect of the conference, but is very much about infrastructure. Given that it's book fair season, perhaps it's well worth thinking about the physical architectures and infrastructures of publishing in the Middle East...

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